Arts, Culture & Entertainment

The sea’s reflection: Children seeing themselves in Disney movies

Addressing backlash against “The Little Mermaid” and what it means for Black girls.

A photo of Bailey in her Ariel in costume as Ariel the mermaid in the ocean, looking up at the world above.

The revival of a childhood classic could be enough to make anyone rush to the theaters to immerse themselves in the beauty of simpler times. After 33 years since Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel’s voice will serenade audiences once again. It’s definitely been a long time since we have been part of her world. Unfortunately, there is one difference that is getting certain expectant audiences riled up: Ariel is not white.

The announcement of the live-action remake exposed a toxic attachment to the culture of nostalgia; viewers appear to weaponize this sentiment to justify their stance against the new Ariel. “The Little Mermaid” is rooted in fiction, yet the mermaid appears to be confined to a very particular aesthetic in order to satisfy the nostalgia factor. Nonetheless, whether audiences want to believe it or not, Disney has moved away from the white, blue-eyed mermaid and has introduced another Ariel–the only difference is that she’s Black. For children who haven’t grown up with the original “The Little Mermaid,” they are now growing up in an era where they can see anyone on screen, and that is how it should be.

Adapting an animation into live-action offers creative liberation. There is no need to abide by animated aesthetics when there are actual actors involved. Casting should be dependent on skillset and heart, and director Rob Marshall found that in Halle Bailey. When her casting was announced in 2019, #NotMyAriel erupted on social media in direct protest of the Black protagonist. Racism was hidden underneath a veil of preserving nostalgia and core childhood memories. Twitter users complained about infidelity to the original character and that “Disney had tainted loyal fans’ childhood memories.” The film’s official trailer, which was released in September, also received an overwhelming flood of hate, to the point where the dislikes were disabled on Youtube. Contempt for the adaptation goes beyond logical film criticism. Much of the negativity is directly or indirectly about race.

There appears to be a lack of consideration for the children of today and the media they are growing up with. Whenever I scroll through TikTok, I come across another child’s reaction to the new Ariel. Their eyes light up, and their pure excitement to see a magical character who looks like them reveals a much deeper importance that is widely overlooked: children are finally able to actually see themselves in Disney, and not just through animation. For a film that caters largely to young audiences, the emotional impact outweighs the backlash against the casting choice.

It’s both heartwarming and concerning to see Black girls so happy and astonished when they realize the mermaid looks like them. While it’s amazing to see today’s youth growing up with more representative characters, this is also a testament to the continued lack of BIPOC representation. Out of all the 12 Disney princesses, seven are white, and Tiana is the only other Black protagonist (and she spent most of her time in the film in a frog’s body). Halle Bailey will be the first Black Disney princess seen in live action.

Black characters are still noticeably underrepresented in Disney animations. Despite the masses of children who grew up looking to these characters as role models, there are still those who don’t see themselves on the big screens. The fairy tales and “happily ever after” are separate from them. They can look into the story from an outsider’s perspective, but they can’t be in it. For all the Black girls who can finally see themselves in another Disney tale, this change is powerful. It is one thing to create a completely new story that involves Black characters, which is just as essential, but it’s another to readapt a classic to break down our expectations of who the main character can look like.

Some of the backlash about the new adaptation is about the idea of “forced diversity.” Rather than developing an authentic story that surrounds a Black protagonist, the retelling of “The Little Mermaid” could be an easy way out for Disney to appear inclusive. To some, any alterations to the original is just a tactic to cater to a more progressive audience. Maybe Disney’s diversity is performative, but even a facade of inclusivity is better than nothing, because now this story is accessible and relatable to a bigger audience.

When discussing children’s literature, author Rudine Sims Bishop’s idea of “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” acknowledges how essential it is for children to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Those who already see themselves reflected should also see someone else be the hero. This directly applies to film, and especially to Disney movies.

Maybe it is ultimately beneficial for a Black Ariel to jar non-Black audiences. They can be exposed to a heroine who does not look like them and expand their definitions of the Disney Princess “look.” The princess aesthetic is still one that needs reshaping; even through a lens of fantasy, protagonists should still feel relatable and human.

It is essential for children to see themselves on screen. Fiction is resonant. At a young age, viewers begin gauging a sense of the qualities that make up a princess, who has access to magic, and who deserves their own story. These films could really help them garner an invaluable sense of belonging–if children can’t even find themselves in fictional movies, then they are being set up to accept exclusion as normal.

The classic “Little Mermaid” will always exist for anyone who needs an adventure down memory lane. There is no breaking of tradition. Rather, there is an appreciation of it. Ariel’s identity is not being compromised when there are more possibilities to what her identity is. She is a character created from imagination; she is not reserved for white audiences or confined to a particular aesthetic. No matter what, the heart and soul of “The Little Mermaid” is staying with audiences–the songs, the characters, and the story are not going anywhere.